Walker showcases 50 years of Frank Gaard

Frank Gaards home
Frank Gaards home, which he shares with his wife Pam, who is also an artist, is usually packed with his work, but many pieces have been moved to the Walker for his retrospective.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

The Walker Art Center opens on Thursday a huge retrospective looking back over half a century of painter and provocateur Frank Gaard's work.

For decades, Gaard has been a pivotal figure in the Minnesota arts scene. His cartoon-like depictions of life, usually in fluorescent colors have delighted and scandalized. The Walker's "Frank Gaard: Poison and Candy" will revisit his long career.

Just inside Gaard's south Minneapolis home, instead of the standard Minnesota living room, a visitor steps into a paint-splattered studio, stacked with supplies.

This is where for the past few years Gaard has painted portraits of friends and neighbors. The pictures are startling in their sizzling color and cartoonish form. His other work refers to everything from toy ponies to the great philosophers.

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Gaard said as an artist who began his work in the 1960s, bright colors have always charmed him. He said they allow an artist to convey a vital intensity to the viewer.

"You have to seize the person by the collar and tell them to feel good, or be happy or enjoy yourself," he said. "The pictures have that quality. Marcel Duchamp said that a picture that does not shock is not worth painting. And I think that that is true."

Gaard has shocked a lot of people over the years, and not just with his colors. His work can be gritty and deal frankly with sex. Women's underwear often appear as icons in his paintings.


In 1986, a show including some of his work at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts drew pickets. They accused Gaard of sexism and antisemitism over a picture which some people believed was Adolph Hitler, but was in fact an image of Marcel Duchamp with a mustache penciled on top.

A year later, with his marriage foundering, Gaard lost his job at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and sought treatment for mental health issues. It was a tough time for him, but Gaard soldiered on. He said his biggest concern was his children.

"I think whatever hatred flowed towards me, or misunderstanding, or whatever, it did ultimately hurt the kids and for that I hold these people responsible," he said. "Nothing I did deserved that sort of a punishment."

"Marcel Duchamp said that a picture that does not shock is not worth painting. And I think that that is true."

There were some lean years. Gaard said he concentrated in part on portraits because they were easier to sell than the huge pieces he had been doing up to that point. He looked for ways to work with other people.

"I am an artist who is interested in collaboration, which is often anathema to the male solo artiste," he said.

But he was good at it. He led the effort to produce "Art Police," a scathing hand-drawn comic book about the art world. Minneapolis Institute of Arts Director Emeritus Evan Maurer said it attracted international attention.

"Collected all over the world, by artists communities all over the world, because of their toughness and their honestness [sic]," Maurer said.

Maurer bought many of Gaard's pieces for the MIA over the years, and considers him a friend. He said Gaard is important to the arts scene in Minnesota because he was a great teacher, and an informed, articulate critic.

"He was a guy who didn't pull punches," Maurer said. "He would come in and criticize a lot of what we were doing at the museum, and I would listen to him because he was intelligent, perceptive and I knew he meant what he was saying."


Originally, the Walker retrospective was meant to feature 50 works, but curator Betsy Carpenter said that idea is long gone.

"No, there's a lot more. That was written at the early stages of the game," she said. "Now there's hundreds."

The gallery pulses color. There are early pictures, new work, album covers, First Avenue posters, Gaard's profusely illustrated diaries, and original artwork from Art Police.

And of course there are portraits — entire walls of them. Carpenter reveals she once posed for Gaard, which she describes as a learning experience.

"My focus was just on sitting still, which I don't think was as important as I thought it was," she said.

"No, no," said Gaard. "But I think it's a good discipline for people, to see how someone else sees them."

Gaard muttered that he's never posed for anyone. It's a throw-away remark, but just like the artist and his work, it carries layers of meaning.